Leaders call for redone Frontier Town to tie developments together
By Tim Rowland
A bit like anthropologists cutting away the jungle with machetes to reveal an ancient civilization, the Essex County Department of Public Works fired up chainsaws earlier this year to extract the bones of a decaying theme park that, for the past quarter century, has been rotting into the undergrowth.
To remedy this, and take advantage of an irreplaceable piece of history before it disappears, the county and the town of North Hudson are seeking up to $2 million from the state to help restore and revive elements of the old Frontier Town. It’s the one-time Adirondack attraction that delighted children and adults alike, with Wild West shootouts, railroad holdups and A-list performers such as Johnny Cash and June Carter, who arrived by plane at Frontier Town’s landing strip — one of the few pieces on infrastructure that didn’t hew to the 1880s.
Many of the buildings — including the entirety of its once-colorful Main Street, along with the jail whose barred window was popular for family photo-ops — are too far gone to save. But some can be brought back from the brink, including a log chapel, grist mill, covered bridge and a working sawmill, still filled with machinery.
Cutting back the encroaching saplings and brush was critical to letting in drying sunlight and saving what could be saved, said North Hudson Supervisor Stephanie DeZalia.
At the heart of the former tourist destination was a rodeo arena, which DeZalia, who grew up in Schroon, recalls from her visits there, as well as vignettes from the acted shootouts between the law and the bandits. “I remember riding the train with robbers holding us up, and watching the bad guy getting dunked in the dunking pool,” she said.
Under plans drawn up by local governments and CPL Architecture, Engineering and Planning, DeZalia said an arena and grandstand would be built for horse shows, barrel racing, country music concerts and other Western themed events. The rustically picturesque chapel could be opened for weddings, and the mills could add a life-sized museum quality for vacationers and horseback riders staying at the nearby state-owned Frontier Town equestrian campground.
The Frontier Town theme park opened in 1952 and closed in 1998. The property became embroiled in litigation; maintenance of buildings ceased; taxes went unpaid; and the county foreclosed.
There things stood until then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $32 million “gateway” project off Exit 29 designed to introduce travelers to the southern side of the High Peaks, which receives considerably less traffic than Keene Valley to the north.
More to Explore
Three projects have resulted. Investors developed the Paradox Brewery, and restored the iconic A-frame into a restaurant, camp store and event center. The state’s primary contribution has been the campground.
A problem though, said Essex County Supervisors Chair Shaun Gillilland, is that these developments represent three independent points on a triangle without connection. In the center of this triangle are the remnants of the old theme park, including about 200 county-owned acres.
“We want to blend this in with the other projects, so people will flow from the A-frame to the campground and brewery,” DeZalia said.
The state has shown flickering interest in the gateway project since Cuomo’s announcement. After the campground opened a state grant helped the A-frame complex’s owner reshingle the prodigious roof on the larger of two buildings, and included it as a stop on a emerging hiker-shuttle route.
But otherwise, Gillilland said he fears the region’s development is losing momentum, and the grand design may founder without county help.
The key to a successful equestrian campground, he said, is a robust trail system, something the Frontier Town campground lacks. Multi-use trails would be part of the rebuild. Phase I of the county plan includes the new arena, and Phase II would include more trails, with restoration of the Frontier Town buildings in Phase III. Ideally, when completed, the site would be sold to a private owner.
Gillilland said that the most popular sports in the equestrian community include trail riding, along with endurance riding and eventing, an equestrian triathlon including dressage, cross-country and jumping.
The county has hopes that riders will one day be able to access a planned trail system heading to the west toward Boreas Ponds. A snowmobile trail was originally planned connecting North Hudson with Newcomb, but it was part of a network that failed a court test for being too environmentally intrusive.
Gillilland said he’s talked to a number of riders in New York and Vermont, who have decried the general scarcity of equestrian facilities in the region. Trails into the eastern Adirondack interior would be appealing to riders, who could return for a bite at the A-frame before tying their mounts at the Paradox “saloon.”
“People could explore the old buildings, go out on the trails and ride their horses to Paradox. The county property is right in the middle of these projects, so to quote ‘The Big Lebowski,’ this is the rug that ties the room together,” Gillilland said. “We need it to keep this project moving forward.”